Work-Focused Therapy Can Help Employees Return to Work Sooner

New research shows that employees on sick leave with mental health
disorders fully returned to work sooner when they received therapy that
addressed work-related problems and how to return to work, according to a study
published by the American Psychological Association.

“Being out of work has a direct effect on people’s well-being.
Those who are unable to participate in work lose a valuable source of social
support and interpersonal contacts,” Suzanne Lagerveld, the
study’s lead author from the Netherlands Organization for Applied
Scientific Research, said in a statement released by the American Psychological
Association. “They might lose part of their income and consequently tend
to develop even more psychological symptoms. We’ve demonstrated that
employees on sick leave with mental disorders can benefit from interventions
that enable them to return to work.”

The study, published online in the Journal of Occupational Health
, was conducted in the Netherlands and followed 168 employees
from a variety of jobs on sick leave due to psychological problems such as
anxiety, adjustment disorder and minor depression. Sixty percent of the
participants were women. Seventy-nine of the participants received standard,
evidence-based cognitive-behavioral therapy, which is based on the idea that a
person’s thoughts, rather than external factors, cause feelings and
behaviors. The remaining participants received cognitive-based therapy that
included a focus on work and the progress of returning to work.

In the work-focused group, psychotherapists addressed work-related
issues in the early phase of treatment and used it as a mechanism to improve
the client’s mental health, such as discussing how work can offer
structure and self-esteem. They also helped the clients draft a detailed,
gradual plan for returning to work, focusing on how the client would engage in
specific tasks and activities.

Both groups received treatment for approximately 12 sessions over an
average of 6 months. The researchers assessed the participants’ progress
every 3 months for 1 year, beginning shortly before the participant started

The researchers found that the group who received work-focused treatment
fully returned to work an average of 65 days earlier than the other group. They
engaged in more steps to fully return to work, beginning a partial return to
work 12 days earlier than the other group. All of the participants had fewer
mental health problems over the course of treatment, and at the 1-year
follow-up, 99% had at least partially returned to work.

The study estimated that employers could save 20%, or about $5,275, per
employee, if an employee returned to work sooner based on wages paid during
sick leave.

“People with depression or anxiety may take a lot of sick leave to
address their problems,” Lagerveld stated. “However, focusing on how
to return to work is not a standard part of therapy. This study shows that
integrating return-to-work strategies into therapy leads to less time out of
work with little to no compromise in people’s psychological well-being
over the course of one year.”

For more information:

  • Lagerveld SE, Blink RW, Brenninkmeijer V. Meij LW, Schaufeli WB.
    Work-focused treatment of common mental disorders and return to work: a
    comparative outcome study. J Occup Health Psychol. Feb. 6, 2012.
    [Epub ahead of print]

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